Synchrotron uncovers fossil’s ghostly teeth

Scientists at the University of Manchester, UK, used a synchrotron to reveal previously unseen anatomy in a lizard fossil.

The team used x-rays from the synchrotron to expose the teeth, which are invisible in normal light, on a 50 million year old lizard fossil. The x-rays revealed the levels of the chemical phosphorous in the specimen, allowing the scientists to identify it as a relation of the ‘shinusaurid’ lizard, Bahndwivici ammoskius, for the first time.  

“Finding the presence of teeth changes almost everything we thought we knew about this fossil. We can identify the type of lizard for the first time, based upon the geometry of the teeth,” says palaeontologist  Phil Manning, one of the paper’s authors, published in the journal Applied Physics A.

They believe that the specimen is an ancient lizard species closely related to the rare Chinese Crocodile lizard currently only found in China, based on its elongated snout and general jaw shape . The presence of the teeth also conclusively reveals that it is a skeleton, not a skin moult, as lizards do not moult their teeth along with their skin. 

“Our findings also raise some fascinating questions about what happened to the animal after its death. What wiped out its bones but preserved the skin and the ghost of its teeth?” adds Manning.

The team used the method, known as ‘Synchrotron Rapid Screening X-ray Fluorescence’, at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in California. This synchrotron technique is only just becoming available to scientists studying ancient fossils and it is hoped that it could be used to go back and reveal new scientific clues about previously studied specimens. 

Describing the technique on his blogDinosaur CSI, Phil Manning says, “The technique permits us to tease-out chemical information from fossils…information that you simply cannot see with the naked eye. Such chemical maps can help us see ‘ghosts’ of original biological structures that only remain in very dilute concentrations in the fossil.”

Manning and his team are already hunting for more ‘ghosts’ in fossils, using the Standford Synchrotron and the UK’s Diamond Light Source.